Friday, September 18, 2009

Esperanza Rising - Farm Workers' Union

One of the ongoing conflicts through the book is the pressure by the migrant camps for better working conditions and wages.

Esperanza and her family group are living in a company camp. They don't need to look for new work every time one crop is complete. They go from grapes to potatoes to tying grapes to asparagus to peaches, plums and nectarines, and back to grapes.

Esperanza is appalled that the house they're sharing with Alfonso and his family is "more (like) the horse stalls on (El Rancho de las Rosas) than (a) place for people to live." There are five people living in their tiny two room house. They do not have running water or bathrooms in their cabins.

Esperanza's house is palatial compared to the conditions in the strikers' camp.
There were only ten wooden toilet stalls for hundreds of people and Esperanza could smell the effects from the truck. Some people lived in tents but others had only burlap bags stretched between poles. Some were living in their cars or old trucks. Mattresses were on the ground, where people and dogs rested. A goat was tied to a tree. There was a long pipe that lay on top of the ground and a line of water spigots sticking up from it.
The Farm Workers' Union would not succeed for decades. Partly this was due to the nature of the work.
...whatever group was the poorest and most recent arrival to this country would end up in the fields. Starting in the nineteenth century, agricultural work has been done by Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican workers, both recent immigrants, and in the case of the Mexicans, also descendants of those who live here under Mexican rule.
And with the depression, the drought and the Dust Bowl, there were so many workers desperate for any sort of income, even one that would not really support them, the workers were at a huge disadvantage.

When farm workers finally did succeed in forming a union, they went about it in a very sneaky way. In the 1930s, we saw how frightening the very idea of striking or demanding better conditions was for the workers. If they didn't work, they couldn't live, and there were plenty of others out there who would take their jobs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the incipient Farm Workers Union didn't initially work toward better conditions. Instead they worked with the farm workers, helping them with daily problems - filling out immigration paperwork, finding health care, getting schooling for the children. They became a trusted organization, obviously working to help the farm workers. The union workers showed the farm workers that everyone pulling together could improve their lives.

Finally in the mid 1960s, the United Farm Workers' Union succeeded in joining the workers together and rallying public support for the Grape Boycott. This finally succeeded in achieving a contract with the produce companies. Here are the huge concessions the farm workers achieved:
There was an end to the abusive system of labor contracting. Instead jobs would be assigned by a hiring hall, with guaranteed seniority and hiring rights. The contracts protected workers from exposure to the dangerous pesticides that are widely used in agriculture. There was an immediate rise in wages, and fresh water and toilets provided in the fields. The contracts provided for a medical plan, and clinics were built in Delano, Salinas and Coachella.
Toilets, living wages, protection from toxins and health care. This seems so basic to us now, but the workers didn't get these till almost 1970.

If you were driven from your home due to war or disaster (tornado? earthquake?), what would you be willing to do to live? How would you like to live?

No comments: